Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Closing tabs

A tour of the Svalbard seed vault.

Does tenure encourage risk-taking?

A social history of Australia through its swimming pools.

Jonathon Green's dictionary of slang is going online. Also: what's a chuggypig?

A miniature replica of 1950s Boston.

"He smelled amazing, he really smelled good."

So far I have held off actually buying anything here, but I can't quite bring myself to close this tab on my browser. I was especially partial as a child (still am) to the candies made out of pure sugar - the Now and Laters, the Fun Dip, the candy bracelets and the candy buttons that came on a paper band, the Jolly Ranchers, the Runts and Nerds and SweetTarts and Tart 'n Tinys - I am only surprised they don't have Bottle Caps (the cafe at Butler Library used to sell these, and I would buy a box occasionally when I really needed to fuel maniacal paper-grading - it is just as well that I haven't seen them there for a couple years, I think, as those soft tart powdery crunchable disks are irresistible to me).

I don't agree with Janet Malcolm's position on the Constance Garnett translations. I've seen this argued again and again (and it's akin to the Aciman defense of Moncrieff's Proust); I suspect the difference of opinion may be generational, in that when I first encountered the translations of this vintage as a teenager in the 1980s I just found them irremediably flowery and over-elaborate. I much prefer the newer style.

Finally, Katherine Dunn died in May. I was utterly arrested and captivated by Geek Love when I first encountered it. My college classmate Thomas Lauderdale knew Katherine very well, and when he hosted me on the low-budget book tour for my first novel in 2003 or so he not only made me feel like a literary lion, he took me over to Katherine's house for tea. I was incredibly flattered, at the end of our conversation, when she exclaimed, "Dashing!" Then she told me that I had a dashing mind, an adjective that has stayed with me as a high compliment.

Saturday, June 04, 2016

"After great pain. . ."

In a single sitting the other evening I read Christina Crosby's A Body, Undone: Living On After Great Pain. It is not a perfect book - I liked least the more intellectual or academic discussions of literary texts that are interwoven with the memoir (they are all well-chosen and apt, but I think these pages and the poststructuralist moments will limit the audience of a book that otherwise should be read by huge numbers of people). But it captures the feeling of living in a profoundly damaged body in the aftermath of catastrophic accident better than almost anything else I have ever read.

I was worried about whether I should read this book at all - I am already phobic enough about riding my road bike that I don't need to read about someone's accident! But afterwards I thought - yes, I did need to read this book, for reasons that have nothing to do with cycling, and others should read it too.

Here is the statement of purpose:
Because of my condition, I've been pondering the reality that everybody has/is a body. Your body emerges through the perception of others as different from yourself, at a touchable distance, and selfhood is not self-contained. What you want, who you are, how you feel are all brought into being over time and in relation to others, and those thoughts and feelings are repeatedly inscribed, creating powerful circuits that organize a sense of embodied self. Such is human interdependency that my self-regard depends on your regard for me. I need and want a more fully livable life, which turns importantly, if not exclusively, on this play of recognition. Spinal cord injury has cast me into a surreal neurological wasteland that I traverse day and night. This account is an effort to describe the terrain. I want you to know, and I, myself, want better to understand, a daily venture of living that requires considerable fortitude on my part and a great dependency on others, without whose help my life would be quite literally unlivable.
For a short book, it manages to touch on an amazing range of subjects, all of which speak very strongly to me even in the places where Crosby's experience least resonates with my own (it is one of the sharpest ironies of the story that in her previous life Crosby was supremely embodied, a sensualist with a strong sexual dimension and a feeling of power in an athletic body - I just don't have that relationship with my body, I don't have gender or body dysphoria as such but I deeply believe that I should be existing not in a body at all but just as a pattern of intelligence and information in the cloud!). Siblings, chronic pain, the relationship between humans and dogs, death via melanoma, love and loss, motorcycles and the pleasure of the open road, breasts (one's own and those of others), the dilemma of relying on wonderful caretakers who are themselves victims of structural inequities that create shame in those who take advantage of them, the value of friendship and community, the Anabaptist tradition and how an adult seeks out versions of communities left behind - anyway, it's really gripping from start to finish. Highly recommended.

Light reading update

I left it way too long to update!

That said, there was a happy development that greatly simplified my light reading life for a spell: Brent did me a "solid" as they say by suggesting that I might enjoy Saturn Run, a space-exploration collaboration from John Sandford and the mysteriously named Ctein. I demurred at first - I very unfairly had lumped together Sandford with James Patterson and similar (I think having "Prey" in the series titles is off-putting, and at some point years ago I clearly conflated Sandford's protagonist Lucas Davenport with the utterly dreadful Alex Cross) - but then I read it and it was utterly delightful! Like the light-reading version of Seveneves or Aurora, two books I liked very much and that stayed with me - it has some of the same qualities as Ready Player One, another book that I resisted initially but gave myself over to with pleasure once I immersed myself in it.

Anyway - it then turns out that Sandford has published EIGHT Virgil Flowers novels (a very good spinoff from the Prey ones) and TWENTY-SIX Prey novels - there is one other spinoff that sounds a little more goofy and I think a few other little clutches of books, so I am pretty much done now (alas!), but I have basically been in light reading heaven, with the soothing fact THAT THERE IS ANOTHER PREY BOOK CUED (QUEUED?) UP TO READ NEXT to alleviate needless anxiety.

However I have just read the last one and it is now time to make my transition into proper summer reading, which actually for me sidelines the light reading somewhat and starts foregrounding more challenging stuff (about which more anon). So, anyway, Saturn Run plus 34 Sandford thrillers have gotten me pretty happily through the last month or so....

As the Prey series came to an end:

Joe Hill, The Fireman (not quite as much to my taste as Nos4a2, but still very good)

Before that happened, this:

Sebastian Faulks, A Possible Life: A Novel in Five Parts (I loved this one - beautifully written and unutterably moving)

James S. A. Corey, The Churn: An Expanse Novella

Nicola Griffith, Slow River (I perversely could have done without the split time narration, but it is really a wonderful book, I liked it very much indeed)

Sarah Rees Brennan, Tell the Wind and Fire (I might be the perfect target audience for this one - I really liked it - I like all her books very much)

Chris Pavone, The Travelers (I think I liked the other book of his I read a little better, but he is a very good writer)

Ian Rankin, Even Dogs in the Wild

Richard Kadrey, The Everything Box (not quite to my taste - if you don't find it really funny, the conceit falls flattish!)

Jessica Knoll, Luckiest Girl Alive (not sure the voice completely works, but it is well done and I do think it's a better book than Gone Girl in a not dissimilar vein)

Craig Schaefer, Red Knight Falling (Harmony Black #2)

The final installment of Pam Brondos' Fourline Trilogy

C. S. Friedman, the three volumes of The Coldfire Trilogy (good but not great - I lost steam as I got to the last volume)

The first two installments of Roz Kaveney's Rituals: Rhapsody of Blood books.

Seanan McGuire, Chaos Choreography: An InCryptid novel; Every Heart a Doorway

Patricia Briggs, Fire Touched

Kristi Charish, Owl and the Japanese Circus (I liked the writing, but the author doesn't have sufficient grasp of what makes a character likeable or not - the voice and the writing are very good, but the protagonist is so selfish and heedless of the situation of others that I found I just didn't care whether things came out her way or not)

Two Rhona Macleod books by Lin Anderson - not enough substance here to keep my attention.

Looking forward to getting into some meatier stuff - just started Knausgaard vol. 5 which somehow I missed when it actually "dropped" in April....

"Two penises"

A funny recommendation from Tyler Cowen: Robert Trivers' Wild Life: Advevntures of an Evolutionary Biologist. Trivers is an extremely distinguished and influential figure, but it is quite an eccentric book (it becomes immediately clear why it wasn't published by a more mainstream press). I was captivated by this bit in particular:
It is a little known fact outside of Herpetology that all lizard and snake males have two penises, one on the left side and one on the right. A given penis is used preferentially depending on whether the male winds around to the right or the left of the female. (If you are a mammal and have a penis, look down at its underside and see if you do not see a line running up it that shows where the two hemi-penes fused during early development.) Initially in evolution, all genital organs tended to be bi-laterally symmetrical. Testicles and ovaries retained this symmetry, but reductions to one also occurred, as in the case of the penis and the scrotum.

In any case, it is easy to reveal the trait in Anolis males. You hold him upside down and manipulate the penis on either side to cause it to extrude. When both are extruded they look like two bananas peeled outwards.

I used to amuse myself by showing this feature off to Jamaican men, knowing that having two penises would arouse excitement, as well as admiration. "One for the yard, one for the road," was a common excited response.

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

The transition to summer

Always awkward and more protracted than I would like! But this is the beginning of a full year of sabbatical - I won't be teaching again till September 2017 - and once I get into a groove, it should be pretty idyllic. I'll be based mostly in NYC with frequent trips to Cayman, but I have two really exciting additional places to be.

(And most immediately, I'll be embarking on the "Reading Austen" book and working on a few smaller non-academic bits, including a piece about Jenny Diski. Clarissa project has not been forgotten but is temporarily on the back burner....)

I'll spend the Michaelmas term (early October through early December) as an Oliver Smithies visiting lecturer at Balliol College, Oxford (I'll be working on the literary history of the footnote with special emphasis on Gibbon and history-writing).

And I'll spend six weeks in February and March as Sovern/Columbia Affiliated Fellow at the American Academy in Rome. Here is the project I'll be working on (I'm really excited about this!):
“Gibbon’s Rome”

“It was at Rome, on the fifteenth of October 1764,” wrote Edward Gibbon in a draft of his memoirs, “as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing vespers in the temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the City first started to my mind.” Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire would expand to treat the long history of the empire as it migrated east, not just the history of the city in which the empire had its origin, and his research took place in libraries, cabinets of medals and so forth in London, Paris, Lausanne and Geneva as well as in the streets of Rome. But the physical landscape of Rome as Gibbon first encountered it in the 1760s provided much of the emotional impetus for the project, and the city figures in the history in a number of different ways.

In “Gibbon’s Rome,” I am proposing a long essay or a short book (probably in the region of 40,000 words) that tells the story of what Gibbon saw in Rome and what it meant to him. I am envisioning a narrative not oriented exclusively towards scholarly readers but written more in the style of something like Mary Beard’s SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome; another model, in a rather different vein, is Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence. The narrative will weave together a number of different strands with the goal of producing a lively narrative history with a literary-critical bent: recounting the series of choices and accidents that led Gibbon to Rome as a place and a topic; reading important passages from some of the works of history that were formative for Gibbon (this is a book about Gibbon’s reading as well as about Gibbon as tourist!) in earlier years and that contributed to the research techniques and evidentiary protocols that underpin Decline and Fall; considering the rise of the Grand Tour as a mode of self-cultivation and development for wealthy young British men over the first half of the eighteenth century; vividly describing the streets and buildings Gibbon walked through, the state they were in during this period and the kinds of collections of artifacts he was able to visit and examine; and of course analyzing and celebrating the language of Decline and Fall. I will draw on visual and journalistic records made by other visitors during the same period in order to bring the setting most powerfully to life.

My goal in this project is not just to recount the history of one historian’s relationship with one city, though that will occupy a good deal of my attention, but also to use the story of Gibbon’s encounter with Rome as a case study that gives us more general insight into how eighteenth-century writers came to understand the relationship between past and present and the tools for narrating and comprehending historical change. The context in which I developed this project involves a longstanding interest in the battle of ancients and moderns as it was worked out in Britain by combative writers like the textual editor Richard Bentley, Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope, and my large-scale research project for the next few years will be to do the groundwork for an ambitious literary history of the footnote in the long eighteenth century. My interest in the footnote really derives from the fact that, as the scholar Evelyn Tribble has observed in an essay on the history of the transition from marginal annotation to footnotes, the shape of the page often becomes “more than usually visible” at periods when “paradigms for receiving the past are under stress”: “In the early modern period, as models of annotation move from marginal glosses to footnotes, the note becomes the battlefield upon which competing notions of the relationship of authority and tradition, past and present, are fought” (“‘Like a Looking-Glas in the Frame’: From the Marginal Note to the Footnote,” in The Margins of the Text, ed. D. C. Greetham [Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1997], 229-244). Gibbon will feature in a chapter of that projected monograph, with the tension between the evidentiary impulse of the notes to the Decline and Fall and their fundamentally skeptical or ironic orientation towards the main narrative providing a starting point for a closer investigation of the footnote in British and French history-writing during this period. But I feel that there’s enough material, in the question of what Gibbon’s monumental history tells us about his own and his contemporaries’ understanding of the relationship between past and present as we comprehend it by way not just of books but by movement through ruins and landscapes and by interaction with historical artifacts, that I’ve made a commitment to pursue this smaller-scale project as a complement to the bigger one.

Six weeks at the American Academy in Rome would provide the ideal setting for some physical exploration of sites and museums alongside time in the library reading some of the narrative histories from which Gibbon took his inspiration as well as modern scholarship on the history of archeology and antiquities in Italy, museums and other viewing sites, other eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British visitors’ accounts of their relationship to the city, practices of historical restoration or reconstruction and so forth. An initial list of authors and books of particular interest to me would include Cicero, Livy’s histories, Erasmus’s Ciceronianus and the associated debate on Latin style, Bayle, Voltaire, Bossuet, le Sueur, de la Bléterie’s Life of Julian and Guischardt’s Mémoires critiques et historiques sur plusieurs points d'antiquités militaires. I would especially love to look closely through the collection of historical maps in the Rare Book Room; serendipity has a large role to play in this sort of project, and there will be no substitute for being physically on-site as I embark upon this research.